LAS VEGAS (AP) — Daniel Cormier was clearly conflicted when he got the UFC’s light heavyweight title belt strapped around his waist in the same Vegas cage where he failed to win it a few months ago.
While Cormier celebrated the biggest night of his career, the new champion also realized a bigger fight casts a shadow over this achievement.
“I have a message for one man,” Cormier said. “Jon Jones, get your (stuff) together. I’m waiting for you.”
Cormier beat Anthony “Rumble” Johnson with a rear naked choke in the third round, dominating on the ground to win the vacant 205-pound title at UFC 187 on Saturday night.
Cormier (16-1) controlled Johnson throughout the final two rounds to claim the title stripped from Jones, who was suspended indefinitely by the UFC last month after his arrest when police said he left the scene of a car accident.
Cormier lost a decision at UFC 182 in January to Jones, widely considered the world’s best mixed martial artist. He returned to the MGM Grand Garden to replace Jones on short notice, but still gave a dominant effort against Johnson (19-5), ending his nine-fight winning streak.
Chris Weidman also defended his middleweight title in the UFC’s hometown, stopping Vitor Belfort in the first round with a relentless series of punches on the ground.
Jones is expected to get an immediate title shot when he returns to the UFC, and Cormier realizes his cathartic victory over Johnson will ring hollow until he beats Jones.
Johnson floored Cormier with a huge right hand in the opening minute, but Cormier recovered and survived the round. Cormier then lifted Johnson off his feet early in the second round, dumping him onto the canvas and taking ground control for a dominant round that left Johnson blinking blood out of his eyes.
Cormier was clinical in his finish, mounting Johnson and getting control before forcing Johnson to tap out 2:39 into the third round.
“He did everything I thought he was going to do,” Johnson said. “I have nothing but respect for him. Have you seen the size of his melon? I wasn’t surprised he could take (the punches).”
Cormier unexpectedly got another shot at the title less than five months after Jones handed Cormier his first career defeat by a clear decision. The former U.S. Olympic wrestler was in training for a bout next month when Jones imploded, and Cormier eagerly accepted a chance to fill the vacancy.
Johnson has revitalized his career after he was dropped by the UFC in early 2012. He earned his title shot with a surprising first-round stoppage victory over Alexander Gustafsson in Sweden in January, and he didn’t hesitate when Jones’ arrest forced a change in opponents to Cormier.
Weidman (13-0) survived an early scare from Belfort and quickly took control of his third title defense, taking down Belfort and battering his head against the canvas until referee Herb Dean stopped the bout with 2:07 left. Weidman walked around the cage with an American flag on his back, celebrating his latest dominant victory.
The 38-year-old Belfort (24-11) briefly appeared to get Weidman in trouble, backing him against the cage while Weidman covered up. But Weidman landed a takedown and took control, mounting Belfort and battering him.
“He hit me with some good shots, but I’ve been there in sparring,” Weidman said. “I was just covering, covering, covering, and I was ready to come back.”
The Long Island native hadn’t fought since last July, and his bout with Belfort was postponed twice in the past year when Weidman got injured in training.
Belfort hadn’t fought since late 2013, waiting 18 months for his shot to become the third fighter in UFC history to win belts in two weight classes. The former light heavyweight champion won three fights with spectacular head-kick knockouts in 2013, but his late-career resurgence was colored by his enthusiastic embrace of testosterone replacement therapy, a medical loophole that allowed several UFC fighters to legally compete on steroids until the Nevada Athletic Commission and the UFC eliminated it last year.
“He got me in a bad position, and he got some strikes,” Belfort said. “There’s no excuse. He was a better man tonight.”
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone earned his eighth consecutive lightweight victory earlier, apparently breaking John Makdessi’s jaw with a kick to the head in the second round. Former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski also stopped Travis Browne with 19 seconds left in the first round of a fantastic brawl named the Fight of the Night.
Cerrone controlled his bout with the game Makdessi, a late replacement for unbeaten lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov. Makdessi stopped the fight when he could tell he had a broken jaw, and Cerrone shrugged as he celebrated.
The incredibly busy Cerrone’s eighth win in just over 18 months could lead to a title shot against Rafael Dos Anjos, who sent Cerrone to his last defeat in August 2013.
“I think I might get this title by default sooner or later, huh?” Cerrone asked.
Arlovski and Browne are friends outside the cage, and they put on a spectacular show earlier on the pay-per-view card, with both heavyweights badly hurting each other in less than five minutes of frenetic action. Arlovski twice knocked down the heavily favored Browne, who floored Arlovski with a huge right hand moments after going down himself.
Arlovski recovered and eventually finished Browne against the cage with several enormous shots.
“I hope tonight isn’t going to affect our friendship,” Arlovski said. “I love him like a brother.”